Veena Nair's childhood curiosity about how things worked, fuelled by her father's encouragement, laid the foundation for her remarkable career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) education.
As Viewbank College in Melbourne's STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) Project Leader, Veena has been making a significant impact in inspiring students, especially young women and those from diverse backgrounds, to pursue careers in STEM fields. Her dedication and innovation in STEM education has earned her the prestigious 2022 Prime Minister's Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools.
We spoke to Veena to learn more about where her passion for STEM came from, and the power of curiosity in shaping the future of STEM in Australia.
Lessons from her father
Veena's early childhood sparked a burning curiosity that led to more than 20 years of teaching science-based subjects across three countries.
"It all started with my father," Veena reflected.
Growing up, Veena's father was a physics professor with an insatiable curiosity about how things worked. He invited her to join him in these investigations without making it feel like a learning exercise. "Let's find out how this thing works," her father would say. Then they would dismantle the new gadget her mum had purchased. Most of the time, they couldn't put it back together, and as expected, her mum wasn't too pleased.
"Even when mum got upset, it taught me two things. It's OK to experiment, and it's OK to fail," Veena said.
After receiving a degree in physics and mathematics, Veena explored several career options ranging from sales and marketing to desktop publishing. While living in Mumbai, she ran a business that taught coding to students from a nearby school. The school eventually integrated coding into its curriculum as an additional subject.
Impressed with her passion for teaching, her students suggested she consider becoming a full-time school educator. Her father agreed. Veena completed her teaching degree, and the rest, as they say, is history.
STEAMing up students' interest
As Head of Technology and STEAM Project Leader, Veena implemented the STEAM club at Viewbank College to introduce students to the variety of exciting things it offers. During lunchtimes, students are encouraged to listen to talks from industry experts, play around with the 3D printers and experiment.
"There is this preconceived idea out there of what a career in STEM means. It's not only being a doctor or a scientist; it is much more. I have found that to ignite that spark in a student, they need to hear directly from seasoned industry professionals. Hearing a first-hand account of the person's interests, subjects and so on makes it more relatable to the students. So, we regularly host industry professionals to talk to our students, whether face-to-face or online," Veena said.
And her work is bearing fruit. The number of first-round offers to Viewbank College students to study engineering and technology subjects at university (especially for young women and students from diverse backgrounds) has increased from 5 to 45 over six years.
"We see a lot of girls getting into the sciences... we are almost on par with gender equity. But I want to see more girls get into the engineering space. And that is what I'll continue to work at achieving. I've noticed that by the time girls reach Year 7, they have already decided that STEM is not for them. So, we need to reach out to them earlier, and show them just how diverse the field is," Veena explained.
More than a STEM educator
Veena is a partner in our STEM Professionals in Schools program, which fosters ongoing and flexible collaborations between school teachers and industry experts. This initiative aims to enhance STEM education and inspire students by connecting them with real-world STEM experiences. The program is supported by the Australian Government Department of Education and delivered by us.
"I've been a partner in the STEM Professionals in Schools program for such a long time I can't even remember when I first joined," Veena laughed.
"The program connects school teachers with professionals who provide current, realistic advice on what is happening in the STEM industry. And those insights continue to inspire and motivate me. I encourage other school teachers to consider joining the program. The experience can be extremely rewarding."
The benefits of partnering with STEM professionals are clear. It can enhance STEM education while inspiring and motivating students to pursue careers in STEM fields.
A prize for excellence
In November 2022, Veena received the Prime Minister's Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools for demonstrating the practical application of STEAM to students and how they can use their skills to make a real impact in the world.
"Not only was it a big surprise but also very humbling. You know, you are doing what you love, and your passion is getting recognised massively," Veena said.
Ruth Carr, Director of Education and Outreach at CSIRO, congratulated Veena on her achievement and praised her for her tireless efforts in igniting a sense of STEM curiosity in Australian students.
"Veena's work is absolutely essential to build the STEM capable workforce, Australia needs now and in the future," Ruth said.
You too can make an impact on the lives of young people and help shape the future of STEM in Australia.